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Talking, writing, educating, and change making in the field of fertility for more than twenty years

Who Has a Vagina? Raise Your Hands!

Lately on some of the fertility blogs there have been declarations of who has Vagina’s and who has penises.

Pretty funny stuff. But what they are really talking about is the issue of gender. What makes a person male or female. It is in the genitals? The DNA? Or in our heads? It’s a complicated questions and in the trans gender community it is a conversation full of passion and conflicting view points.  Sex. Sexual identity, and sexual express is always ripe for controversy.  And many of the debates about human sexuality have been going on since the beginning of time. And the issue or our genitals – and what they represent to us – is as loaded as a Wendy’s Overstuffed Baked  Potato.

Sometimes I feel like I am a little late to enter “The Conversation”. But that has never stopped me before! After all, I really just discovered Daphne Merkin after reading her cover story on depression in The New York Times, “A Journey Through Darkness” a few weeks ago, Daphne is a fearless writer who has written on many controversial topics in her own voice and through her own eyes. Daphne puts it out there and invites controversy. Bravo. I love fearless.

After I read the piece in The Times online – my eyes stumbled on to several related links – other writings by Merkin. And these writings have been talked about for several years in the on line commentary that I recently found. But I just have to weigh in….of course I do!

First there was the piece that ran in The New Yorker on sensual spanking (“Unlikely Obsession”) which apparently raised a few eyebrows and no doubt a few skirts – and then there was another controversial piece that ran in The New York Times called “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” - where Merkin talks about the new world of shall we call it “The Cosmetic Vagina” and female self loathing.

Merkin talks about the world of Brazilian waxes, hymen reattachment, labia reshaping and shortening and what it says about how we view our female genitals. I celebrate the fact that she writes it all – through her eyes – and that the NY Times publishes it. But Merkin misses the mark when she says -

“Truth be told, I always considered myself lucky to have escaped coming of age at the height of the consciousness-raising era, when anatomical self-examination took on the aspect of a collective ritual. Those were the days when women felt obliged to convene in sisterly circles with mirrors and flashlights the better to study their bodies, themselves. Never having been one to enjoy group activities of any sort, the thought of becoming more closely acquainted with my private parts in a public setting seems potentially traumatizing rather than liberating or, God knows, celebratory”.

Actually – that is the problem. The problem is that most women do not know what female genitalia past the pubic mound looks like. And if we as women don’t know our bodies and have a healthy self image how are we supposed to have sexual pleasure and a healthy relationship to our own bodies? It is through the not seeing and the not knowing where women often self destruct as sexual beings.

Women don’t grow up like young boys stealing glances in the locker room to see what is going on with other same sex bodies. We have no idea of the diversity of the “Vagina” and we can’t even agree on what to call female genitalia- a subject that gets most sexologists screaming that “the vagina is the birth canal” and not a good descriptor of a woman’s sex organs.

Perhaps if women could see more of other women’s inner sexual landscapes – if it was alright for women to look – we women would get it that each vulva is a unique work of art. Instead – the only pictures of female genitals that most women see are the air brushed and clipped versions in the journals of Playboy.

Women don’t get to see images of real women.

For Merkin to celebrate the fact that she missed the age of the brave pioneering women who came together to explore the great unknown – mirror and flash light in hand – is truly a disservice to those that came before her. The fact is that there are still rare opportunities – and few books outside of medical manuals that give women the opportunity to see the diversity of vulva’s celebrated. If they did – Dr. David Matlock’s practice of “Vaginal Rejuvenation” wouldn’t be so popular.

There is a part of me that hates myself for criticizing Merkin at all. Look – she is out there and she is at least sparking the conversation in very reputable publications about female sexuality in a way that is real and in the first person. That takes courage. And for her reward, she gets to not only take it on the chin for her bravery by “sexual conservatives” but also by well known outspoken sex activists like Susie Bright and Dr. Betty Dobson for example in this excellent and scathing commentary “Daphne Merkin Needs to get Spanked Again”. But it is the fact that I can take her on that is so wonderful! Daphne is a big girl – and she is putting it out there – I suspect she can take care of herself. And she is doing a service to all of us by taking this conversation whether you agree with her or not into publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times so that there is a public discourse on issues that are never talked about.

This morning as I was researching this blog I came upon “How to Have Baby Making Sex” on one of my favorite fertility blogs “How to Make a Family” . At first I was all excited! A fertility blog other than mine was talking about sex! But in a nano second, I became incensed by the introductory language of the piece – and I quote:

“If getting pregnant hasn’t been so easy for you, maybe you’re not doing “it” right.” Doing it right? It almost didn’t matter what came next in the blog – the shadow of a past insult and shame came flooding back in an instant. It didn’t matter if the off hand remark which was made with too many beers in hand happened over 23 years ago.

It was the only time my husband ever became inflamed over our infertility experience with a family member. It was when his brother asked him if “we were doing it right”. My mild mannered husband – stood up and punched his brother on the jaw. To this day – I have never seen my husband raise a hand to anyone before or since!

Why begin a conception sex tip piece with a knock to our sexual self esteem? It is insulting. And it’s why many men don’t want to see a reproductive specialist – because they are worried that they will be told that they are not doing it right.

Look, it’s hard enough already for couples who are living through “conception sex” Do they need to have that particular myth reinforced that perhaps they are not doing it right?

And what does any of this have to do with Daphne Merkin and “My Vaginas, Ourselves”?

Well, Daphne has taken it on the chin for what may be seen as taking hidden issues to the main stream – and here is How to Make a Famiy taking a stab at sexuality and conception. And instead of giving them snaps for being a fertility blog uttering the word “sex” – I am stomping around my apartment.

So – we don’t all agree. But at least we are starting to talk about sex in a new and open way – right? Even the fertility blogs.

I wonder who I am provoking this morning?

About Pam Madsen
Talking, writing, educating and change making in the field of fertility for more than twenty years
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. Pamela–

    Have you seen the book “Femalia” by Joani Blank? Here is what they say about her book…


    Down There Press, 1993.

    Down There in True Color

    I like to draw the attention of readers to a most unusual book, the title of which, short for FEMale genitALIA, has been adopted from Nicholson Baker’s erotic novel Vox.

    More than any other book published in the past, this small work is truly open and honest about the yoni (vulva), showing her in all her variety (size, shape and texture) and splendor (colors and detail). This unique and beautiful work has been compiled, and is introduced, by Joani Blank, the publisher of Down There Press and (co)author of various other publications about sexuality.

    The 32 photographs have been taken by two women (Tee Corinne and Jill Posener) and two men (Michael Perry and Michael A. Rosen); a well chosen balance. Equally well chosen are the women who dared to be the models; they are different in age and genetic background, some have born children and others have not.

    The yonis here shown are sometimes closed, sometimes (held) wide open, some are shaved and a few are pierced, some have been photographed from close by (4-5 cm) and some from more afar (10-25 cm). The photographs are well printed in true (skin) colors.

    For more information about this book, visit

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